Trauma and Relationships
The concept of trauma was once limited to traumatic effects that could be directly associated with a stressor or series of stressors. For example, people who had been in an accident or had undergone the trauma of war might suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But our increased understanding of trauma has brought with it the insight that trauma can result from chronic stressors as well.
This article will talk about a type of trauma called relational trauma. Relational trauma arises, generally speaking, from attachment difficulties. For more on an overview of attachment theory, see my previous article here: Part 1 & Part 2. The failure of an attachment figure to attune to us and be present for us can be just as traumatic as the traumas of accidents or war.
This article will give an overview of relational trauma and then focus on the way to heal from trauma. Trauma is, unfortunately, a part of many of our lives. But healing from trauma is possible, and the ability to overcome trauma and become more integrated speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.
Relational Trauma: An Overview
Relational trauma arises when, for whatever reason, our caregivers cannot give us the attunement and emotional availability that we need. We all experience this to some degree—no parent can be 100% present 100% of the time. But some of us experience more attachment wounding than others.
According to attachment theory, we are driven toward seeking attachment, i.e. connection to others. Unfortunately, the attachment figure that we are drawn to may not always be consistent and/or safe. This can be confusing for us both as children and as adults and may result in insecure attachment. We may develop patterns to try to maintain closeness and connection to others while also protecting ourselves from hurt and betrayal.
Effects of Relational Trauma
The effects of relational trauma can include an impaired ability to trust others. We may feel less safe in our environments or have more difficulty establishing and maintaining boundaries. Emotions may feel less manage-able, and life-stressors may be more difficult to navigate. In some cases, our stress response may be heightened, leading to challenging emotional and sometimes physiological responses.
Relational trauma can impact our sense of self and our sense of self-worth. If we have inconsistent attachment figures, we may start to internalize the sense of being “not good enough” to have our needs med. We could start to view ourselves as unlovable. Alternatively, we could become angry at not having our needs met. We could view others as undependable. Other effects associated with relational trauma include hyperactivity, anxiety, impulsivity, hypertension, sleep problems, dissociative states, excessive dependency, increased stress responses, and hypervigilance.
Of course, there are variables on the impact of traumatic events. Our age at the time of the traumatic event, the presence of supportive caregivers, the number of adversities we face outside of the relational trauma, and our relationship to the person or people in question are just some of the factors that may influence the impact of trauma. And, not all traumatic relationships and events are created equally. What may be traumatic to one person may not be experienced as traumatic to another. Working through and owning your own trauma is a crucial step on the path of healing.
How to Heal From Relational Trauma
There is good news! Our attachment style is malleable. We are able to move toward secure attachment later in life even if our attachment style at one point is insecure. This is known as “Earned Secure Attachment.”
Just as attachment injuries happen in relationship, so too can they be repaired in relationship. If we are able, later in life, to find a healing relationship or relationships, we can start healing some of our trauma.
We want to be able to find a secure base with another, which typically means the person we are in relationship with shows us consistent attunement and care. This person could be a therapist, friend, mentor, child, or someone else—anyone that makes you feel cared for and understood. With enough positive experiences where we feel seen, respected and valued, our attachment style can start to change.
Trauma can heal. We can start to feel whole and integrated. Healing from relational trauma takes time, but it is possible. As we start to heal, we start to feel more alive and to live our lives in a way consistent with the fullest expression of ourselves—something we all deserve.
Allison is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She views therapy as a collaborative process that helps you understand how to be the truest version of yourself. She works with adults, couples, and families. She helps people work through anxiety, depression, relationship issues, career challenges, and trauma. Visit her website, www.allisonzamani.com to learn more or reach out via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation call.
Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #107189
Associate Professional Clinical Counselor #5316
Supervised by Trisha Rowe, LCSW #13444